Brain Pen

A blog about productivity and mental health for writers

Chopstick Theory - Asking for Help When You Feel Undeserving

We all need help. So why is it so hard to ask for it?

Setting up a doctor’s appointment. Filing an insurance claim. Researching the right ergonomic keyboard. Taking the car for an oil change. None of these tasks take very long, yet for someone who is at the end of their mental or emotional energy, they can feel insurmountable. I know, because these are all things I asked for help doing in the past few months, when I finally realized that—without it—I wasn’t going to manage them.

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That was hard to admit. I like to think of myself as independent. I left for Japan at 22 completely by myself and learned to do all my adulting in a different language. Honestly, though, I had help even then. My first year, the company I worked for subsidized my rent, and the following two years, it was often a struggle to remember. My poor landlady had to come to my door and very politely remind me to send her the bank transfer.

 Now, at 34, I’m only just admitting to myself that I’m not very independent.

And I hate that. I want to be the kind of person who is just as fine on my own as I am with other people. I don’t want to have to rely on someone else, especially since I am not a person who can be considered reliable in return. I don’t want to ask for someone to bring a kind of energy to a relationship that I can’t reciprocate.

Never mind if that’s how relationships work. I’d like to know I can more than just struggle by if everyone I ever know and love decides I’m not worth the effort. And isn’t that a shitty thought to have about your own friends? Damn, Lauren.

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Part of the problem is trust. Of course I trust my friends, but I’m insecure. I’m always going to fear making them angry, asking too much of them, asking for too much time to myself, then asking just the opposite. Because I’m not independent, I’m an introvert. I need a lot of time to myself, and I guard that time like a cat guarding a stolen sock. Crouching. Growling. Batting away any hand that threatens to touch it.

Learning to ask for things when I already feel like I shirk my duties as a friend and a roommate and a daughter and a human is really hard.

But I did ask. Finally.

I asked my best friend—an aspiring coach with a degree in abnormal psych—for help finding a therapist. Partly, because I knew she’d already done the research when I had my last bad depressive spell and was really just waiting for me to give her the opening to share it. She gave me her top option, and, facing down a phone call I didn’t know if I could make, I asked my mother, who was also itching for some form of actionable help.

The appointment was set.

And that was kind of a moment of epiphany for me. My friends and family, rather than sitting there resenting my inability to do it all myself, were actually feeling helpless. They were searching for something to do. Asking for help was a relief to all of us.

I thought of how I felt when I found out my roommate—my other best friend—had been dealing with something for months without saying anything. I was sad. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know what would be in my power to do.

When we’re having a hard time, there are relatively simple tasks that feel insurmountable. When our friends are having a hard time, we wish there were something we could do to help.

These two observations form the basis of what I’m calling Chopstick Theory.

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If you have friends who are neurodivergent (and really, who doesn’t), you may have heard them discussing spoons.

“I can’t make it. I’m out of spoons.”

This is not some weird Millennial equivalent of “I have to wash my hair”. These people aren’t blowing off a party to run the dishwasher or pick up a new set of utensils at Target.

They’re using a useful mental health shorthand called Spoon Theory. If you know about Spoon Theory, you can skip to the break. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, read on.

Spoon theory suggests that each person has the same number of hypothetical spoons in their drawer. Each spoon represents energy required to complete an activity or series of activities. For some people, getting out of bed, taking a shower, getting dressed, brushing their teeth, having breakfast, and heading to work takes one spoon. For others—particularly those who are neurodivergent or disabled—each of those activities requires a separate spoon.

By the end of an average work day, many people have enough spoons left to come home, cook dinner, play with their kids, and watch some TV before bed. Maybe they have enough spoons left to go to an exercise class or work on a project.

Others have used up their spoons. A conversation in the break room might take a spoon from them. Sometimes just the act of being in public and needing to be “on” is constantly using spoons. By the time they roll up at home, they’re lucky if they have the spoons to make a bowl of cereal and curl up in bed with Netflix. Forget the rest.

There was a corollary done by a Tumblr blogger named Jenrose, which she called Fork Theory, which describes a fork as an irritant or a problem. It can be hunger, or it can be getting told a doctor can’t do anything for your chronic pain. Forks can vary in size and irritation level. Jenrose explains:

“Fork Theory is that one has a fork limit, that is, you can probably cope okay with one fork stuck in you, maybe two or three, but at some point you will lose your shit if one more fork happens.”

Today, I’d like to add another corollary.

While Spoon Theory focuses on what you can give, and Fork Theory focuses on what you can withstand, Chopstick Theory focuses on what you need.

Picture a bowl of ramen. Each noodle, each piece of chashuu pork, each half egg, is a different task you must pick up and feed to the hungry beast that is your life. You start out as a pair of chopsticks. When you’re dealing with depression, chronic illness, disability, one of those chopsticks gets used up. Now, you’re just a single chopstick. Could you feasibly succeed in your task? Well, yeah. But not without a lot of splashing, stabbing, and general awkwardness. And not without a lot of extra energy.

What you need is a second chopstick. Or hell, maybe what you need is for another entire set of chopsticks to feed your life beast, because right now you feel like one of those cheap disposable chopsticks that broke off like the short end of the wishbone. Without help, your life beast is going to get fed poorly.

And your family, your friends, your coworkers, people you only know on Facebook—these are your fellow chopsticks. Many of them are waiting to help you. Sometimes, even another single chopstick with a broken end is happy to come along and help you lift something from your bowl, because they know what it’s like to need the help.

It’s hard to ask, though. It’s so hard to admit that we need other people, when we don’t feel worthy of them, or when we already feel that we take too much. I’ve been trying, though. And it’s been getting easier. Allowing myself to need help, and telling others about that need, is the only way my life beast is going to get fed.

So I encourage you to ask for help. Write down those tasks that you just can't seem to accomplish. Communicate with your friends and family and explain that you're having trouble getting some of these things done, and ask if anyone is willing to help you with them.

Chances are, someone is. And they're not going to think less of you for asking. They'll be happy you gave them a concrete way to make your life better.